General Hospital's Natalia Livingston touched the hearts of millions of soap opera fans when she took on the role of Emily Quartermaine in the early 2000s and played out an emotional storyline about breast cancer. And she's bringing meaningful content to daytime fans once more with her new documentary In Their Shoes: Unheard Stories of Reentry and Recovery.
The hard-hitting film follows four men working to overcome labels as criminals and drug dealers. It's an intimate portrayal of their lives, focusing on their journey in a prison reentry and addiction recovery program that offers a creative writing class called Writers Without Margins. Viewers will learn, in the men's own words, what led them to commit their crimes and the complexities they face upon returning to the outside world.
In Their Shoes comes at a critical time: as described on the documentary's Indiegogo page, drug overdoses, fueled by opioids, are now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50 and account for more deaths than car accidents, handguns, or loss of life at the height of the HIV epidemic.
Soap Central caught up with Livingston and her co-producer Cheryl Buchanan to get the inside scoop on the powerful documentary. The pair discusses why they were drawn to the subject of men in an addiction recovery program, why Writers Without Margins is so meaningful, the challenges they faced getting uncomfortable footage from Boston's Methadone Mile, and more. Plus, Livingston (who also played Days of our Lives' Taylor Walker for a short time in 2011) shares some GH memories, her thoughts on how the ABC soap opera is handling its current Alzheimer's storyline, and some updates about her pregnancy and baby, who is due this September.
Soap Central: So, let's start with how the two of you -- Natalia and Cheryl -- came together to work on this project. Did you know each other prior?
Natalia Livingston: Well, actually, Cheryl was dating my boyfriend.
Soap Central: Wait, what?!
Livingston: My TV boyfriend!
Soap Central: Ooohhh, okay. I was like, "This is juicier than soap operas!"
Livingston: [Laughs] Cheryl was dating my TV boyfriend at the time, and that actually happened to be Chad Brannon, who played Zander Smith on General Hospital. So, when [I came on] as Emily, I got to work with Chad, and Chad and Cheryl were dating in real life at the time. Chad would come home and say, "I am so happy to be working with Natalia, and we are doing such great scenes, and it's wonderful." So, she started to kind of wonder, "Who is this Natalia person?!" [Laughs]
Cheryl Buchanan: I was hearing way too much about Nattie. I had a very different kind of job, and I'd come around, and he'd be all happy about her, and yeah, I really needed to get to know who this person was. And here we are 16 years later, and we are still friends. Actually, she's my best friend, so it worked out pretty well for me.
Livingston: Yeah, for me, too. Cheryl asked me out to dinner, and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship!
Soap Central: Which of you had the idea to start producing this movie, and how did it come about?
Buchanan: Nattie was doing these beautiful film shorts for the Actor Boutique, which is her business, and I had seen them and was really impressed with the quality of film she was doing. And then she offered me the gift of doing a video for us, for my nonprofit Writers Without Margins. We had done one for our youth group and a couple for our homeless shelter poets, poets we had met with at homeless shelters, and we had talked about doing a video at the prison, of the addiction and recovery program. It started out as a five-minute video project, and she had offered the editors and director she was working with to work on this with us, and it just got bigger and bigger and bigger because it became so clear that there was a bigger story to tell.
Soap Central: So, Cheryl, you were working with Writers Without Margins, but did either you or Natalia know someone who had a drug problem? Was there a personal connection to the topic?
Livingston: For several years now, because Cheryl is my best friend, I've been hearing about the incredible work that she has been doing with Writers Without Margins and really hearing the behind the scenes. There are just so many inspiring stories, so I was already very eager to film further once we realized this was a much larger project. But I definitely have had friends along the way who have struggled with addiction -- my coworkers, as well -- and we've had several interventions for friends. So, that is the way I think it hit me on a personal level. But I think that what Cheryl and I have seen is that this is really something that has hit so many people. We've received so much outreach... So many different people reach out and say, "My brother is struggling with addiction, my father did, my husband, my wife, etc." The outpouring has been incredible, the amount of people writing us. And these are not just two-sentence messages, either; they're in-depth stories from people just wanting to talk to somebody about what they are dealing with in their personal lives. I think addiction has affected everyone at some point. We've all had friends or coworkers or family members that have struggled with this, and I think we are seeing more now just by getting the word out there about our documentary.
Soap Central: Something connected that has been making the news lately is Demi Lovato's drug overdose. What do you guys think about the response that has gotten? Have you seen what people are writing on social media about it?
Livingston: I hate to see anybody be a sacrificial lamb for a conversation or opportunity to force people to be more real about a difficult subject, but I do think that people are coming to terms more with the truth about addiction. There's mental health, and then there's a blurry line between the two because they are both public health issues. Between mental health and addiction, and that fact that we have had a lot of celebrities in the last couple of years come to a tragic end as a result, people are being more honest about the fact that resources are not enough, and appearing to be happy on the surface is clearly not always an authentic reality... So, I think an opportunity to break through the barriers and get to the root of the stigma is always progress, I guess.
Soap Central: What kind of reaction have you guys gotten from making this film, because I know some people think, "Oh, if you are an addict, it's your own fault." Have you had people approach you with that opinion, or has it been mostly positive reactions you've received?
Livingston: What I have seen has been overwhelmingly positive. There have been people from my high school and California days, and even people that I don't even know, that have reached out to us and told us their stories. And [the reaction has been] so positive, "Thank you, we can't wait to see it, we can't wait to hear their stories." I think that, especially with the title In Their Shoes, it's a chance for us to really hear from these men, hear their stories instead of hearing this one-dimensional idea of who this person is. They made a mistake, and this is what happened. It's really just understanding and hearing their stories, about their childhoods, about their trauma and what happened and what led them to this place. And just like all of our stories, they are not one-dimensional, they are multi-dimensional. We have histories and we have backstories, and that all [influences] what we do with our lives.
Soap Central: It's a documentary, so you are dealing with real people. Did you face any challenges -- anything unexpected or uncomfortable? For example, getting people to really open up or any danger that you may have encountered while filming?
Livingston: Yes, definitely. I know Cheryl will jump in here, as well, but just to start, filming at the reentry facility was one of the biggest initial hurdles we had. First of all, the topic is controversial in nature.
Buchanan: Reentry is controversial, and [the entire topic] is controversial in nature. I think the [organizers] were afraid of what might surface and not having control over it. So, the initial answer was no, then the second answer was no, and we spent six months trying to get a yes. Basically, we were just blocked from being able to film there, but it wasn't personal to us: no one had ever filmed there. There hasn't been any press there, ever, and no cameras and there are no cell phones there. We were really asking a tough question, which was, "Can we tell stories in a place where there is no media access at all?" In part because it's a complicated place and in part because I don't know how much interest there is. So, this story hasn't been told. That was the first issue, and we didn't drop it. We eventually got permission to film with these guys on site, which wasn't all that much less complicated.
Livingston: There were so many complicated logistics there: trying to get the guys [to our filming locations], busing them there, making sure all the releases were signed and they made it back to the facility on time, because if not, they would get written up and then kicked out of the program. So, there were a lot of logistical issues we had to overcome. We really wanted to get them all together off site, and we were finally able to do that. That was one of the main hurdles, initially, and then also we wanted to figure out how to accurately depict what was going on on the streets. That was important to us, and internally, Taylor, the director, and I were sort of thinking of doing it one way, and Cheryl was passionate about doing it another way, so we finally ended up filming on Methadone Mile just to show the most visible sign, I guess you could say, of rock bottom, so to speak. So, we ended up shooting there, and of course, yeah, it's a dangerous place. It's not safe, so we were camped out about a block away, and we sent our director, and he obviously had to go in disguise and to conceal his camera and sit back and get that footage and make sure no one saw him. It wasn't the safest situation, and as we were sitting there, we were approached by all sorts of people. But it was something we wanted to show.
Buchanan: I think the question was how to do it ethically and responsibly and also accurately without being exploitive of people who are in pain. But that is a real important part of the story. This is where internally we just had a lot of conversations about how to do it the right way. It is a documentary and you want to be real, but I also had a really strong sense of protection. We are trying to show a redemptive story, and I want to show the transformative power of recovery. I also had this inclination to not show people at their worst, but that felt disingenuous, too. I knew that that was the wrong answer, not to go there. So, Methadone Mile is an area near health centers and shelters in Boston where folks are literally on the street at their worst, and I think that that's not unique to Boston. I know that is not unique to Boston. There are areas like that in every major city right now. And what we ended up doing was talking to the guys in the documentary about it and asking, "Is this something we should do? Because right now you all look pretty good, and you are talking about this period in your lives; we are not seeing that you then, thank God. So how do we do this? How do we tell this story?" We sat down with them and we talked about it and that is what we did several times -- we did it consistently throughout the shoot and would say, "How do we do this? How do we name this? How do we depict this?" That is how we approached the toughest questions.
Soap Central: How did the men react to you? We are in an age where men and woman are supposedly equal, but at the same time, these are hardened men from prison. Did they take you seriously? Or was it difficult to speak with them and earn their trust?
Livingston: I think for me, it was easier walking in just because Cheryl had already built a very strong rapport with them and had already earned their respect. I could see the genuine respect they had for her, and over time, she proved herself to be someone they could really count on and someone who is genuine and had their best interests at heart and wasn't going to exploit them. That wasn't something that happened overnight; that was something that took a really long time for Cheryl and the men to build together. So, when I walked in, I was immediately welcomed as her best friend and producing partner. She had talked to them about what we were doing at length, so they were very, very kind, very welcoming, and just willing to trust and willing to tell us their stories.
Soap Central: I did hear, actually, that a lot of people in prison watch soap operas. Did anyone recognize you?
Livingston: Ah, that is a great question! I did get some very, very long stares through cell bars when we were touring the prison facilities, but I think that was more just that they had not seen women other than the security guards. I don't really think it had anything to do with me being on TV. There were a few people who worked at the prison that recognized me, though, which I thought was interesting.
Soap Central: Have your guys' opinions about recovering addicts or recovering criminals changed throughout this process at all?
Buchanan: I think I've always had a high opinion of people in recovery from addiction because I think it takes a lot of work and a lot of commitment, and the requirement of fearless moral inventory is a lot to ask of any of us. I think people who are going through that just have a depth, and a gravity... you can feel it in the room. So, I think that's really a good community to either be part of or be witness to, and I think that's part of what is revealed in the film, which you can even see from the beginning of when we started filming and at six months later. I don't think it's grandiose to say there is spiritual growth in people. So, that for me didn't change; I had seen that in individuals before, and it's pretty profound. But I really like the idea of what you said in your question, people in recovery from this sort of criminal element in their lives, which is a really interesting thing that I hadn't necessarily seen, because that is a full identity and that also takes a lot of work. You have to change your location, change your friendships, change your connections, your goals, everything. And that is something I hadn't necessarily contemplated. It's one thing to do it internally but then when it requires all these additional obstacles, like how do you get a job with a criminal history? How do you get housing with a criminal history? How do you rebuild the relationships that are potentially healthy with a criminal history? Or create new ones and have to disclose that? There is so much when we are talking about recovery... so much going on with all of these additional factors.
Livingston: I think for me, Kambra, when we hear of someone having been a felon, it's easy to see that in black-and-white terms and just to think everyone who is in prison is bad or evil in some way. So, for me, it was just so eye-opening to really dig deeper than that and to see them as multi-dimensional people, as we all are, and to learn about their family life, about their childhood, to learn about how some of them experienced debilitating trauma and abuse and others who just wanted to fit in, and it was as simple as taking one pill at a party that led them down this horrible road of addiction. So, just learning about that really helped me to see people with that history or that current situation in a different light. I think I have always been a very empathetic person, and I have been drawn to stories of struggle and triumph, but this one is especially moving to me and even more so now that I have been able to dig deeper and learn more about them and what brought them to these lives of crime, and then seeing them reenter into society and wanting to build this bright future for themselves. Something I love to think is that our lives are like beautiful novels, and a novel is not made of one chapter -- it's made of many different chapters. And just like we think that for ourselves, I think for these men, their lives are a collection of many, many chapters and that was one chapter of their life. And it's so exciting to see how are they going to write the next chapters of their lives, and I think that is so inspiring for me. I know that they're positive and hopeful, and that is a really beautiful thing to see.
Soap Central: Speaking of writing chapters, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Writers Without Margins and how it assists recovering addicts to heal?
Buchanan: There are moments where I think about overwhelming challenges that we were just talking about, and I end up thinking, "Why on earth are we going in there and asking people to do writing exercises and write poems, like how could that possibly help? It seems frivolous in a way." But the thing is, there is actually decades of research on the psychological, physical, and behavioral outcomes of expressive writing and therapeutic writing. There is a specific researcher out of the University of Texas we went and interviewed for the film -- we actually interviewed quite a few experts on the politics, the morality, the medicine, all related to the drug crisis and mass incarceration and all of the issues here -- but specific to therapeutic writing, there are studies that reveal how chaos, turmoil, and what goes on in the brain, PTSD, can actually be channeled in some ways and be mediated by being taken and somehow used in a more structured way through language, and not just specifically language, but language with the written word. And that is what we are doing. So, I always say that by having some authority in your story, and the first part of authority is the author, that a person can gain more control and gain more empowerment and more meaning over what is occurring in their lives. And it's not just my theory. So, that's what's going on in our workshops, and then some of them will choose to have their work printed in our journals. We spend time on the revision and the editing and the feedback and the one-on-one work together. Some of them are interested in doing readings, so we do public readings, but it's sort of supplemental to what goes on in the twelve steps [to recovery], which is storytelling and sharing. And we are also bringing in work that they are reading together that helps them connect to these universal stories of struggle and redemption and identity and purpose, so that's what's happening.
Soap Central: So, this is just for Natalia: Has your connection to the daytime community or soap operas influenced you at all during the production of In Their Shoes? I don't know if you were exposed to anything behind the scenes or any story you played that has maybe influenced you at all?
Livingston: I think that daytime and acting in general has definitely influenced me in that it has helped me to really study human behavior. Daytime and acting are heavily rooted in emotion, so we study our emotions, we study the emotions of other people, we analyze characters and personality traits and histories and backstories, and we look to our characters' past to understand why they are acting in a certain way in the present. I think all of the work that I did on daytime and I continue to do today has fine-tuned my senses in that regard, so it has really helped me as a producer and for documentaries.
Soap Central: Speaking of characters' pasts, I know Emily's drug addiction storyline played out before you took over the role, but she did have a drug problem, so is that something you kept in mind when you were playing her?
Livingston: You know, I probably did on a subconscious level. But I was immediately thrown into a breast cancer storyline that I was honored to play, so my focus was really there at the time. That particular storyline was so demanding, and I was learning so much about the disease and meeting so many people who were struggling with breast cancer, so my focus was mainly there. But I am sure on a subconscious level, knowing that about the character did influence certain moments I played along the way.
Soap Central: What do you guys think about the way soap operas tend to portray drug addiction? There have been many, many stories over the years, and they all do it differently, but perhaps you know there is one that stood out to you in a positive or negative way, either way?
Livingston: I have a lot of respect and admiration for daytime writers because I know they do their research and speak with people who are struggling with the disease they are writing about. They bring in experts, they look to tell the story in their shoes, so to speak, in the shoes of the character, so from within the character in the totality of what that particular character is experiencing. I think we're seeing that, from what I've heard, in Maurice Benard's (Sonny Corinthos) recent storyline that dealt with Alzheimer's. I have no doubt that they really studied that disease in depth and spoke to so many people and really did their research to tell that story. And I know they did with mine, with the breast cancer storyline that I had. They really went into such detail, and I felt that I was in good hands with the writers. So that just leads me to believe that they would do the same with a drug addiction storyline. But one in particular from the past doesn't come to mind just yet.
Buchanan: I agree with what Natalia said, and I remember during her time [on the show] always talking about meeting with real people and how the writers did that. I was always impressed with that, and I don't think all of television does that. I think it's important, as much as possible, that it happens. It's critical, how people treat one another in real life.
Soap Central: Natalia, do you miss working in daytime?
Livingston: I do! I do miss working in daytime. It's an incredible job and it's a wonderful community of professionals and of fans. I made so many dear friends during my time there, and I'm still dear friends with many to this day. So, I definitely miss that. But right now, my life is so full. I have a wonderful husband, my real-life prince charming. I had the daytime prince for so long, and I've met the real-life prince, and it's a dream come true for me. And I have a baby on the way and a business that gives me a lot of purpose. And now I get to produce meaningful content with my best friend, so I'm very happy and very inspired with what I'm doing right now, so life is good. It would be hard to leave all of this and go back to daytime, but it's something that I would definitely consider.
Soap Central: You're expecting your baby really soon - in September, right?
Livingston: Yes, I'm due on September 5th. We just had an ultrasound, and the doctor says that she has a full head of hair already! And it's even growing a little bit down her back, which I couldn't believe. [Laughs]
Soap Central: So, you better be ready to do hairstyles already!
Livingston: I need to get headbands and all of that fun stuff.
Soap Central: You mentioned when we first got on the phone that you're working on your house right now, so do you have a nursery ready or a place for the baby all ready to go?
Livingston: Noooooooo! HELP! Please help! [Laughs] We're remodeling the main floor, and God knows what motivated me to do this right now. I think it's just something we kind of had to do before we moved in, but basically no. Everything we own is in boxes right now, even all of my baby stuff and baby registry things and the beautiful things that friends have gifted me. Everything is still in boxes in our basement, which is where we're living until we can move upstairs. So, no, the baby room isn't ready. I've pretty much bought everything that I need for it, but they're sanding the floors right now as we speak, so I have to wait until that is done, and then I can start to move everything in.
Soap Central: I have my fingers crossed that it all comes together fairly quickly! Has your pregnancy and knowing that you're becoming a mom changed your feelings about the work that you've done or are doing and where you want to go in the future when it comes to work?
Livingston: Yeah, well, related to this documentary, I've always had a pretty strong maternal side. I see that with my students at Actor Boutique, which is an acting studio that I have. And now, Cheryl and I are definitely going through it, because we're constantly worried about the guys in the documentary and always wanting the best for them and their families. So, I think that maternal instinct is kicking in on all sorts of different levels.
Soap Central: Is there anything else that you want to add that maybe I didn't ask about?
Livingston: The documentary will be completed in a few months, and at that point, our goal is to submit it to film festivals around the country and then also to take it to schools around the country, and we are raising money to do that.
What do you think about our interview with Livingston and her co-producer Buchanan? What do you think about the premise for In Their Shoes and Livingston's part in producing the film? Would you like to see the actress return to daytime? We want to hear from you -- so drop your comments in the Comments section below, tweet about it on Twitter, share it on Facebook, or chat about it on our Message Boards.